Editor’s Note: It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “soundtrack.” The Times-Gazette today presents part 10 of a special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the stories behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
The Negro spiritual, a unique form of American hymnology, paved the way for a popular Christmas carol that had been performed by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as far back as 1879.
Hymn historian Robert Morgan wrote that the music group took antebellum plantation songs of the Negro slaves to the world — “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was one of the last of the spirituals to be uncovered and published.
Very few of the traditional songs were collected or published prior to 1840.
Negro spirituals were unwritten songs that were passed from plantation to plantation and also from generation to generation, according to Morgan.
Negro spirituals had their beginnings in the 18th- and early 19th-century camp meetings throughout the South, as well as in evangelical ministry at the time, Ken Osbeck wrote in his book “Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions.”
John Wesley Work, Jr., who is said to be the first black collector of Negro folk songs and spirituals, was intrigued by the chorus and melody of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Morgan said. Work wrote two new stanzas for the song and published it in 1907 as part of his book, “Work’s Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations.”
Work was born in Nashville in 1871, and after graduating from Fisk University, he returned to finish a master’s degree, eventually joining the college’s staff as a professor of Latin and Greek.
But Work’s greatest passion, Morgan said, was in preserving and performing the Negro spiritual, so much so that it became his custom before sunrise on Christmas morning to take students caroling from building to building at Fisk University, singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Work passed the love of their heritage to his two sons, John Work III and Frederick Work. Like their father, John III and Frederick served on the faculty of the college and worked with the Jubilee Singers in collecting and publishing Negro spirituals and folk music.
As Osbeck wrote, “these traditional spirituals have since become an important part of the American folk and sacred music heritage, and are greatly appreciated and enjoyed by ALL of God’s people.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.